Robert Wright on "Progressive Realism" in Foreign PolicyHere (at the New America Foundation) and in the NYT.Wright's heart's in the right place, and his specific proposals are often good (not that my endorsement matters there, as he clearly knows more about the subjects than I do), but his philosophy's confused. (If you're interested in effecting actually good actual results in the actual world, however, you could do worse.)Problem is, everybody wants to eat his cake and have it too. This goes for theories of foreign policy as well as other domains. I write about this a lot, so forgive me for repeating myself, but here's the sketch of the competing positions:"Realism": The only ultimate goal of a nation's foreign policy should be to advance the interests of that nation."Idealism": Advancing human rights in other countries can be a legitimate ultimate goal of a nation's foreign policy.I use "scare quotes" here because I don't think that either of these terms is very good. "Realists" aren't any more "realistic" than idealists, they're just--theoretically speaking, at any rate--amoralists when it comes to foreign affairs. "Idealists" aren't necessarily that idealistic, they're just not amoral egoists when it comes to foreign policy.In moral theory, as you probably know, it's common, all too common to try to work it so that morality and self-interest track together. That is, to the question "why be moral?," many have tried to answer "because it's in your self-interest."But--to deal summarily with a large part of the history of Western thought--it just ain't so.Morality, as Kant among others has emphasized, can demand of us that we make sacrifices--sometimes very large ones--for no personal gain. If I see the Hezbollah thug about to murder kindly old Mrs. Schwartz, and if there is a reasonable chance that I can stop it, then I must try to help, despite the danger to myself and even if I know for sure there will be no payoff of any kind.The same thing goes in foreign policy. Moral considerations can sometimes obligate a country to do things for which it will receive no reward other than blood, toil, tears and sweat.To believe that virtue is always rewarded--in this world at least--is to live a fantasy.Sometimes, of course--more often in more civilized societies--virtue is rewarded. In fact, I believe that it is frequently rewarded, even in the realm of international affairs. As a matter of fact, a nation with a more moral, humane foreign policy is, in the long run, more likely to survive and flourish. Or at least that's what I believe the evidence indicates.This is something upon which most realists and idealists can agree: nations are often rewarded for doing what is right. They are frequently rewarded with security, and with good will--and the latter is a an asset of enormous value, despite what more pessimistic realists say in their more pessimistic moments.So if realists and idealists agree so often, what's the problem? About what are we disagreeing?What we are disagreeing about here, as is so often the case when discussions become abstract enough to count as philosophical, is the hard cases. Not the easy ones, not the common ones. The question is: what should we do in those cases in which morality and self-interest do not coincide? We know what to do when they do coincide; there is no disagreement there.In the hard cases, the "realists" counsel selfishness, idealists counsel observing our moral obligations. It is, really and truly, as simple as that.In a case in which, say, we must decide whether to spend a nickel to secretly save a million innocent people on Mars--an act for which we will never receive any payoff of any kind--realism entails that we must save the nickel. Idealism tells us to save the people.One might respond that no one would really let a million innocents die to save one nickle out of the U.S. budget.
First, that probably isn't true. Many people are sociopaths, and even more are egoists. I wish it were otherwise.
Second, even if no one would really make such a decision, this means that no one is really a "realist," not that this is not what realism demands.
(One might also object that that's not really a hard case, it's an easy one--but that would betray a confusion. By 'hard case' we meant case in which morality and self-interest diverge, not case in which the conflict between humanity and self-interest is a close call. The latter is a different kind of hard case.
As for those different kinds of hard cases, we can discuss those, too, but when we get to the level of thinking about philosophical positions, it often helps to discuss the easy cases first. That's why we usually start by talking about cartoonish, science-fiction-y cases: to wash out all the grubby details to get at the principle in a pure form. This different kind of hard case is represented by our actions in the former Yugoslavia. We spent treasure, risked blood, and suffered condemnation by doing what was right. There was, in fact, some security payoff--most real cases are, after all, mixed cases (see above)--but it wasn't overwhelming.)
So Wright's "progressive realism" is not really realism. This may be a mere terminological problem, but terminology can matter, and this bit is misleading--though, as he notes, catchy. "Progressive realist" suggests a position which is, well, realist--that is, to refer back to our innocents on Mars case, a nickle-saving position rather than a people-saving position. What Wright is really advocating is a kind of (as we might put it) realistic idealism (or realistic progressivism, or conservative idealism, or somesuch). He is advocating a position which is idealistic at its core--a people-saving and not a nickle-saving position--but which recognizes the high human cost of trying to solve tough humanitarian problems quickly and especially with force.
The point of this is to distinguish liberal hawks from neoconservatives. The difference is a puzzling one, one I've tried to sort out before to little avail. My working hypothesis is that liberal hawks are genuine idealists whereas neocons are, in fact, realists who think that promoting democracy is beneficial to the U.S. Liberal hawks also tend to be more conservative, in the sense that they appreciate the dangers of drastic and military action, whereas neocons tend to be radicals, confident of their own baroque, Rube-Goldberg-esque quintuple-bank-shot plans for re-making the world. But I digress.
Wright's progressive realism is a promising position, though not a novel one. Foreign policy "Idealists" rarely advise us to tilt at windmills to save the world--those are merely the charges made against them by realists. "Idealists," as I've noted, haven't really been that idealistic. But realists, being realists, try to paint them as naive, starry-eyed world-savers the instant they counsel any deviation from calculations about national interest. I welcome Wright's piece, but he might just as well have simply pointed this out: that foreign policy idealists usually encourage us to be a minimally decent country rather than a sociopathic or egoistic one, and that such minimal, circumspect decency is something even realists can usually be persuaded to get behind.